Friday, April 26, 2002

CBS data on high literacy ignites controversy

By Razen Manandhar
KATHMANDU, April 25 [2002]: Census 2001, the recently concluded mammoth head-count exercise, reveals that Nepal’s literacy rate - that is people who can both perform basic reading and writing- has shot up to 53.74 per cent. But the data is attracting controversy as education experts refuse to believe that progress in literacy has made such strides.

The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) announced recently that adult literacy rates has reached 54 per cent. But experts say, the figures do not reflect the actual situation. Worse, there is spreading confusion as many institutions and organisations other than the CBS continue to have their own literacy data.

Mana Prasad Wagle, a professor of Tribhuwan University’s Education Department, said that the data of CBS is "not reliable" and the government is only trying to please the donors by "playing the game of digits".

To drive home argument, Wagle pointed out that the National Planning Commission, in a study conducted four years ago, found Nepal’s literacy rate at 36 per cent. "I can challenge, the literacy rate of Nepal cannot go beyond 40 per cent," he said. "The census was carried out at a critical time and most of the western villages were officially and unofficially left untouched. A sample study in five development regions will reveal the fact," Wagle said.

Moreover, Wagle is vehemently against the present system of surveying literacy rates. "Nowhere in the world does statistics on literacy rate include children below 15 years of age. Post literacy and continuing education should be taken into account when we survey literacy rates," he argued.

Another educationist, Dr Tirtha Khaniya, questions the very definition of literacy. Though he does not challenge the CBS data, Dr Khaniya nevertheless says, "what is the use of literacy if it cannot help a person in his profession later on? So we need to go for functional literacy to seek people’s participation in development, rather than boasting about literacy figures."

Meanwhile, international organisations do not see the CBS announced figures as a major achievement. Education officer at United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Rohit Pradhan, said that 54 per cent literacy should not be a cause for joy since the government had committed as far back as in 1990 to raise the rate up to 67 per cent by the year 2000.

"The next thing is that literacy must be defined according to the present context. Many of the VDC officers have not even seen computers.

Then the question arises, what type of literacy we are talking about," says the UNESCO officer.

Another area which is confusing experts is the different literacy data in circulation. While CBS puts the latest literacy rates at 54 per cent, other organisations have their own figures. UNESCO for instance found 35.9 per cent literacy in 1998. Then there is the four-year old National Planning Commission figure of 54 per cent.

Says Pradhan of UNESCO, "It’s embarrassing that on World Literacy Day (September 8), half a dozen newspapers gave different data on Nepal’s literacy rate."

Spokesperson of Ministry of Education and Sports, Yubaraj Pande said that the recent data produced by CBS "must be reliable" as it was based on door to door survey. "Irrespective of its outcome, we can’t say that the actual survey of CBS is wrong and the national and international projection is right."

But he admitted that the term literacy rate must be redefined and come to functional utility of literacy the surveyors count.